Roundtable on renewables

| 1st June 2009
Abstract photo with tree in lightbulb
The Ecologist harnessed the power of several luminaries from the renewables world to find out why a wholly renewable future seems no closer than before.
This should be the best of times for renewable energy in the UK, so why does progress seem so glacially slow?

In many ways, this should be the best of times for the renewable energy industry: the Government has set the world’s first carbon budgets, promising steadily falling CO ² emissions; the subsidy paid to green energy generators, the Renewables Obligation, has been weighted towards emerging technologies to give new ideas a financial boost, and by 2010 we should finally see a continental-style Feed In Tariff for small-scale renewables, whereby householders get paid a guaranteed premium for every kilowatt hour (kWh) of green electricity (and, soon, heat) they produce.

So why, then, does the progress of UK renewable energy seem still to be so glacially slow? In November last year, BP announced that it was pulling all £5 billion of its renewable energy finance from UK projects in favour of the US, and in March of this year, Shell revealed plans to scale back all of its renewable investments except for biofuels.

Despite efforts to clear the logjam, there are also still nine gigawatts (GW) of potential wind power stuck in the planning system, of which some 5GW could be operational within three years if the go-ahead was given.

It was with this in mind that the Ecologist brought together eight renewable energy experts from businesses and NGOs alike, spread across the different technologies, to work out where the hold-ups for renewables really are.


It was widely agreed that while electricity receives the lion’s share of government and media attention, the need for renewably generated heat for homes, businesses and industry is the ‘elephant in the room’ of the UK’s energy strategy.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist, explained why he advocates the use of combined heat and power (CHP) plants, which deliver both electricity and heat to nearby houses, even if they are currently run on fossil fuels.

‘If you have a CHP station that is supplying 1,000 homes then when you want to change to your different fuel… the logistical challenges of dealing with that are child’s play compared to changing boilers in every single house,’ he said.

But Parr was challenged by Professor David Mackay, a Cambridge University physicist and author of a critically acclaimed new book, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. Mackay argued that, from a scientific perspective, it is ‘a crime’ to take a chemical and set fire to it simply to generate low temperature heat. In place of district heating, he recommends the use of heat pumps, which run on electricity but concentrate ambient heat in the air or the ground to produce useful heat.

Julian Morgan-Jones, managing director of biomass supply company South-East Wood Fuels, said that there was a huge resource of waste wood from the construction industry available for use as a fuel, but that it is currently classified as contaminated by the Environment Agency.

‘By far the biggest proportion of wood in this country is waste wood,’ he said. ‘If we had processes to sort the contaminated from the uncontaminated material we would have around eight million tonnes of extra biomass.’

Our experts also raised the findings of a report in February from National Grid, which suggested that the biogas generated through anaerobic digestion of all the UK’s sewage and waste food and wood could supply half the nation’s domestic natural gas demand. Mackay pointed out that this is a relatively small proportion of overall heat demand, however, and that a better use for the gas might be for cooking or heating buildings unsuited to heat pumps.

David Strahan, journalist and author of the book The Last Oil Shock, added that biogas might also be used to run heavy-duty engines that cannot easily be converted to run on electricity, or to run public transport.

Nuclear and renewables

This should be the best of times for renewable energy in the UK, so why does progress seem so glacially slow?

Can the UK meet its carbon targets without resorting to nuclear power? Possibly, but not without a struggle, seemed to be the response from our assembled experts.

Doug Parr said that the risks and costs of nuclear power still outweigh its usefulness, and that we shouldn’t discount the possibility of significant technological advances with current, small-scale renewable technology, where much smaller costs make innovation faster and easier.

David Mackay agreed that targets could be achieved without nuclear, but he argued that this would only be possibly through heavy use of concentrating solar power plants.

‘The only thing that really scales up apart from nuclear is solar power from other people’s deserts, so, the supergrid,’ he argued. ‘If we imagine having a choice between 50 nuclear power stations – 50 Sizewells – which would cover current electricity consumption in Britain… If we say “No, we don’t want that”, the alternative is we go to Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and talk about building five Greater Londons’ worth of solar power stations.’

Nicholas Josefowitz, director of RenGen Energy, which finances and installs renewable energy systems around the world, asked whether having Colonel Gaddafi controlling our electricity supplies was any better than having OPEC in charge of oil supplies. But David Strahan argued that a supergrid would be a more democratic system than our current energy infrastructure, with both imports and exports, and serious financial losses for anyone tempted to ‘turn off the switch’ on political grounds – unlike oil or gas, which can be stored, electricity must be sold immediately, or wasted.

Derry Newman, chief executive of Solar Century, reminded us that there is still plenty to achieve at home, and that the forthcoming Feed-In Tariff would be a ‘step-change’ in UK solar power.

‘Around 2013, the cost, per kilowatt hour, of a domestic solar installation will be the same as what you pay to buy it from grid' he said. ‘So that changes behaviour, when you get to that level. That’s what happens in France – we sell to French farmers now, converting barns to 30kW solar systems, and the farmer makes more money from the electricity the barn generates than he does from the goats or sheep inside.’


There are few people working in the renewable energy sector who don’t have an opinion on the planning system, and our experts were no exception.

Juliet Davenport, chief executive and founder of green energy supplier Good Energy, called for a planning system that is fit for purpose.

‘I don’t think the planning system should be used to develop energy projects. There should be an energy planning system to use to develop energy projects, not something for putting up a shed in a back yard.’

Chris Wintle, sales and marketing director of Ecotricity, agreed with the need for a hybridised system that combined local and national priorities.

‘Local consultation should determine whether you put up five or 10 turbines, where you position them slightly, or move them – those sort of things I think are very good,’ he said. ‘But now it’s become a sport of “how can I stop these things happening?” There needs to be some power that can make a well-informed decision quickly.’

Some of the experts wondered whether community ownership of wind farms would help matters – a model that is common in Germany. But Wintle warned that community owners can make bad energy managers, and Davenport added that part of the reason for Germany’s success had been a generous tax break to encourage investment in wind. Nicholas Josefowitz said that the reality of community ownership was not always what it seemed.

‘The wind power [in Germany] doesn’t get owned by the guy whose land it’s on, or the local community,’ he stressed. ‘In general, it’s doctors and dentists who invest in funds, and then those funds will go all over Germany and buy wind farms.’

Derry Newman pointed out that solar installations were much less often obstructed on planning grounds, and in many cases were actually seen as an improvement to a property. Even on a larger scale, he pointed to examples of how solar power could fit seamlessly into the urban environment – creating a solar canopy for a car park was one example.

Mark Anslow is the Ecologist's News Editor


A masterplan for the future of renewables

We asked our experts to put together a wish-list for speeding up the progress of renewable energy in the UK. Here are their ideas.

1 A ‘hearts and minds’ campaign
The brainchild of Julian Morgan-Jones, this would be an attempt to dispel some of the myths surrounding renewable energy, and to win public support. Its potential is not to be underestimated: when turbine manufacturer Vestas closed its Isle of Wight manufacturing plant in April, its CEO squarely blamed ‘UK nimbyism’ for its demise.

2 A reformed planning system

The Planning Act 2008 promised to streamline the building of large-scale renewable energy facilities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cover any installation below 50MW, which means community-scale renewables still face exactly the same obstacles as before.

3 Reform of Ofgem
The regulator better known for brow-beating the big energy suppliers over gas prices actually plays a key role in the development of renewable technologies, our experts said. Because it was set up purely with a financial objective – making sure power continues to be as cheap as possible – it has frequently stood in the way of greener options. Doug Parr suggested that ‘carbon-reduction’ be given an equal priority with ‘price-reduction’ in Ofgem’s remit.

4 A floor under the carbon price
Although there are other mechanisms to support renewable energy, the rising price of carbon should be a powerful motor for change. Unfortunately, it has yo-yoed up and down so much that few investors have been able to make long-term decisions. David Strahan suggested that a floor price below which the cost of carbon would not be allowed to fall could help to encourage money to flow into renewable technologies.

5 A long-term view
David Mackay suggested the creation of a new political body that would have long-term responsibility for renewable energy, rather than operating on short, four-year electoral cycles or responding to the erratic whims of markets. Doug Parr said this could administer an overarching policy on renewables to ensure things remained heading the right direction.

6 Upgrade the grid
It was suggested that both the onshore and offshore grid network needed to be bolstered and made more accessible in order to encourage wind and marine energy, as well as make sure that remote sources of power from the northern British Isles could be delivered to energy consumers in the south.

7 Rewarding installers
Juliet Davenport warned that new regulations drawn up by the Government would stop businesses that had installed renewable technologies from counting the output towards their carbon targets. The Government says the energy has already been ‘incentivised’ once, under the Renewables Obligation. Davenport pointed out that this one decision has made BT think seriously about scrapping a proposed 250MW wind turbine building plan.

8 Wind-neighbour tariff

Should the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign fail, there was a suggestion that special, slightly reduced electricity tariffs could be introduced for those living close to proposed renewable energy developments. This might help soften objections to the installations, but would require a change in regulation that currently ensures everyone (in theory) pays the same rate regardless of where they live.

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